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NCF Nation: Steve Flaherty

Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
Our Big Ten spring preview continues with a look at the Legends Division.

IOWA

Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Succession plan for Stanzi: Remember James Vandenberg? The plucky young quarterback who nearly led Iowa to a milestone win at Ohio State in 2009 returns to the spotlight as Iowa looks to replace three-year starter Ricky Stanzi. Vandenberg had only eight pass attempts in 2010, so it'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to a potential featured role. John Wienke and A.J. Derby also will be in the mix.
  • A new-look defensive front: Iowa loses three multiyear starters along the defensive line, all of whom likely will go onto the NFL. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns return, but Iowa must begin building depth around them after not playing a large rotation of linemen in 2010. It'll be a big spring for reserve defensive linemen like Lebron Daniel and Steve Bigach.
  • Rhabdo fallout: Iowa expects the 13 players hospitalized last month with rhabdomyolysis to be ready for spring ball, but there are questions about how the group responds to the rigors of practice. Expect the staff to take every precaution to make sure the players are ready to go. Iowa's internal investigation into what happened could reach its conclusion during the spring practice session.
MICHIGAN

Start of spring practice: March 19
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Hoke springs eternal: All eyes will be on new coach Brady Hoke as he oversees his first 15 practice sessions as the leading man in Ann Arbor. Hoke and his staff introduce new offensive and defensive systems, and Hoke likely will spend much of his time with a defense that reached historic lows during former coach Rich Rodriguez's tenure. An adjustment period can be expected, but Hoke wants to get things rolling as soon as he can.
  • Denard Robinson: The 2010 Big Ten offensive player of the year thrived in Rodriguez's spread offense. How will he be used in coordinator Al Borges' system? Will Robinson's unique talents still be maximized? After making major strides last offseason, Robinson must continue to grow as he adjusts to a new offense. This is also a big spring for backup quarterback Devin Gardner.
  • The move to the 4-3: Michigan is going back to a 4-3 defensive alignment under coordinator Greg Mattison, and the transition begins this spring. The defensive front has to lead the way, and the personnel is there to get it done. The Wolverines are a little thinner at linebacker, but saw some encouraging signs from Kenny Demens this past fall. Others must emerge at the position this spring.
MICHIGAN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Familiar face, new leadership: Dan Roushar takes over as Spartans offensive coordinator, and while you shouldn't expect many dramatic changes, the veteran assistant will put his personal touch on the system. Roushar wants to fully re-establish the run game Michigan State displayed in the early part of the 2010 season. It'll also be interesting to see how he works with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
  • Reloading at linebacker: Michigan State loses two of the more productive linebackers in recent team history in Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Returning starter Chris Norman will take on an enhanced role, and the spring will be big for younger linebackers like Max Bullough, Steve Gardiner and Denicos Allen.
  • Elevating the O-line play: You can bet Roushar will have an eye on his old position group, the offensive line, as it replaces starters at both tackle spots and at center. If Michigan State can get its offensive line play where competitors like Iowa and Wisconsin have it, the Spartans will be Big Ten title contenders for years to come. Michigan State has some nice pieces like veteran guard Joel Foreman, but it must build depth this spring.
MINNESOTA

Start of spring practice: March 24
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • A time to Kill. Jerry Kill conducts his first 15 practices as Minnesota's coach and he has no shortage of challenges. He and his assistants must install new systems on both sides of the ball and, perhaps more importantly, get across their expectations for the players going forward. Kill wasn't overly thrilled with his first impression of the squad, so he has a lot of work to do.
  • Gray back at QB: After a season playing primarily wide receiver, MarQueis Gray is back at his preferred position of quarterback. Kill and his assistants made no secret of the fact that they see tremendous potential in Gray, a dual-threat signal-caller who could end up being a terrific fit for Kill's offense. It will be interesting to see how much Gray can absorb this spring as he prepares to lead the unit.
  • Kim Royston's return: Minnesota's defense got a huge boost when the NCAA somewhat surprisingly granted safety Kim Royston a sixth year of eligibility. Royston, who had a strong season in 2009 before breaking his leg last spring, is ready to go and should provide some much-needed leadership in the secondary. New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will be on the lookout for playmakers and leaders this spring, and he'll find one in Royston.
NEBRASKA

Start of spring practice: March 12
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • New vision on offense: Nebraska likely will have a championship-level defense in 2011, but will the offense bounce back from a poor finish to last season? Tim Beck is the man pegged to get things back on track. Coach Bo Pelini promoted Beck to offensive coordinator, and Beck will begin to implement his vision for the unit this spring. Nebraska figures to stick with the spread, but what version Beck wants to use remains to be seen.
  • The quarterbacks: Taylor Martinez stiff-armed the transfer rumors, and in January said he looked forward "getting healthy and getting my strength and speed back." The big question: Will he also get his job back as Nebraska's starting quarterback? Martinez can help himself with a strong spring, but Cody Green also is in the mix and things could get very interesting if Bubba Starling decides to stick with football rather than pursue a pro baseball career.
  • New faces on staff: In addition to promoting Beck, Pelini hired three new assistants: Corey Raymond (secondary), Ross Els (linebackers) and Rich Fisher (receivers). Raymond takes over a talented group that must replace three standout players, including cornerback Prince Amukamara. It'll be interesting to watch Fisher, who most recently coached in high school and also served as a golf teacher, as he transitions back to big-time football.
NORTHWESTERN

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Rebuilding the defense: Northwestern figures to have one of the Big Ten's top offenses this fall, but there are major issues on the other side of the ball. The Wildcats' defense flat-lined in the final three games, surrendering 163 points and getting dominated at the line of scrimmage. It's a big spring for coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who must fill gaps at spots like linebacker, but more importantly must restore the aggressiveness seen in 2008 and part of 2009.
  • The backup QB race: Dan Persa is still rehabbing his surgically repaired Achilles' tendon and won't do much in spring ball. It provides an opportunity for Northwestern to hold an extensive competition to see who backs up Persa this coming season. Kain Colter provided a spark in the bowl game and could be the answer. Evan Watkins needs a bounce-back spring, and Trevor Siemian will be in the mix after redshirting this past fall.
  • Here's the kicker: Northwestern loses four-year starting specialist Stefan Demos and will look to identify a replacement this spring. Neither Jeff Budzien nor Steve Flaherty has attempted a field goal in a game -- they have combined for two PAT conversions -- so the race will be wide open. Special teams has cost Northwestern at inopportune times over the years, but it could be an area of strength in 2011 if the kicker situation is sorted out.

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